Thursday, September 27, 2018

The Mystery of the Three Quarters: The New Hercule Poirot Mystery (Book Review)

Title: The Mystery of the Three Quarters
Author: Sophie Hannah
Publication: William Morrow, hardcover, 2018
Genre: Mystery
US cover
Plot: The world’s most beloved detective, Hercule Poirot—the legendary star of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and most recently The Monogram Murders and Closed Casket—returns in a stylish, diabolically clever mystery set in the London of the 1930s.

“We Agatha Christie fans read her stories--and particularly her Poirot novels--because the mysteries are invariably equal parts charming and ingenious, dark and quirky and utterly engaging. Sophie Hannah had a massive challenge in reviving the beloved Poirot, and she met it with heart and no small amount of little grey cells. I was thrilled to see the Belgian detective in such very, very good hands. Reading The Monogram Murders was like returning to a favorite room of a long-lost home.”
— Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl


Hercule Poirot returns home after an agreeable luncheon to find an angry woman waiting to berate him outside his front door. Her name is Sylvia Rule, and she demands to know why Poirot has accused her of the murder of Barnabas Pandy, a man she has neither heard of nor ever met. She is furious to be so accused, and deeply shocked. Poirot is equally shocked, because he too has never heard of any Barnabas Pandy, and he certainly did not send the letter in question. He cannot convince Sylvia Rule of his innocence, however, and she marches away in a rage.

Shaken, Poirot goes inside, only to find that he has a visitor waiting for him — a man called John McCrodden who also claims also to have received a letter from Poirot that morning, accusing him of the murder of Barnabas Pandy...

Poirot wonders how many more letters of this sort have been sent in his name. Who sent them, and why? More importantly, who is Barnabas Pandy, is he dead, and, if so, was he murdered? And can Poirot find out the answers without putting more lives in danger?

Audience: Fans of Agatha Christie, of the traditional English mystery, the Golden Age of Detective Fiction

Purchase Links: Barnes & Noble * Amazon * IndieBound * HarperCollins

I prefer the UK cover, don't you?
My Impressions: Sophie Hannah is a poet and well known crime writer in her own right, and I have now learned she is the daughter of Adele Geras, who has written a number of young adult novels based on fairy tales that I found compelling and disturbing. Several years ago, Hannah was tapped by the Agatha Christie estate to pen some new Hercule Poirot stories and this is the third one she has produced. Poirot, the finicky Belgian detective, is assisted in Hannah’s three books by a Scotland Yard detective, Edward Catchpole. The actual crime is a sort of variation of the locked room mystery, in which a crime is committed under circumstances that are almost impossible.

While Miss Marple was known for solving crimes by using her knowledge of human nature, Monsieur Poirot is skilled at unravelling puzzles and he does not fail us here. Hannah creates a large number of plausible villains and Poirot, a show-off who always delivers, uses a multi-colored cake (the quarters referred to in the title) to identify the killer in this convoluted story. He is then able to summon all the characters together for one of those famous dramatic conclusions where he explains to everyone how he solved the case.

I read The Monogram Murders, the first continuation written by Hannah, three years ago and enjoyed it. This is also an entertaining read which Christie fans will enjoy. I was always a Christie fan but have not reread any Poirot titles recently: the one thing I felt was lacking in Hannah’s version was humor. Maybe I am wrong but I recall more of an amused tone in Christie’s work (some of the funniest books are her standalones like The Man in the Brown Suit – perhaps my favorite – and The Seven Dials Mystery). In addition, I found Detective Catchpole’s first person narrative disrupted the flow of the story and I would have preferred that his sections were written in the third person.  Two spoilers below:
Source: I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher and TLC Book Tours for review purposes. You can visit other stops on the tour and read the reviews by clicking below:

Tuesday, August 28th: Reading Reality
Wednesday, September 12th: Thoughts From a Highly Caffeinated Mind
Thursday, September 13th: Write – Read – Life
Friday, September 14th: Jessicamap Reviews
Monday, September 17th: I Wish I Lived in a Library
Tuesday, September 18th: 5 Minutes For Books
Wednesday, September 19th: Instagram: @jennblogsbooks
Thursday, September 20th: Instagram: @brookesbooksandbrews
Friday, September 28th: A Bookish Way of Life
Spoilers below:
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First, John McCrodden is portrayed as unclean and unattractive so I am unconvinced anyone fastidious and obsessed with appearance would have had an affair with him.  Second, there was no good reason for the letter Timothy Lavington received saying that his father was not dead – except that it was helpful for the typewriter aspect of the plot.   I wish Hannah had done something to make these elements fit her plot better.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

When the Lights Go Out by Mary Kubica (Book Review)

Title: When the Lights Go Out
Author: Mary Kubica
Publication: Park Row Books, Hardcover, September 2018
Genre: Suspense
Plot: Two parallel stories: Eden, a carefree newlywed, becomes so obsessed with having a child that it threatens to destroy her marriage, and Jessie, a young woman who has just buried her dearly beloved mother and has not been able to sleep since that terrible day. As if being without family or friends isn’t bad enough, when Jessie submits a college application, she is told her social security number belongs to someone else and is plunged into a mystery about her own identity. Is there anyone she can turn to? Is everything her mother told her a lie?

Audience: Fans of psychological suspense; author such as Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman, Tana French

Purchase Links: Barnes & Noble * IndieBound * Amazon

My Impressions: It is hard to articulate my thoughts about this emotional thriller without revealing the controversial twist at the end. Jessie is a sympathetic character, devoted to her mother and suffering from such intense insomnia that the reader can feel every exhausted grasp for coherent thought. In addition to the mystery about her identity, Jessie is unnerved by the carriage house she has just moved into, from which she hears strange voices and sees lights in the attic next door at midnight. I was reminded of Elizabeth is Missing in which a character with memory issues is worried about her missing friend.

This is a very readable story that will keep you up late; however, I am not really a fan of unreliable narrator stories and in When the Lights Go Out there are two, although the truth is revealed in time. My caveats: Eden’s self-destructive obsession got tiresome and the plot twist at the end was annoying (not least because I liked Liam). In contrast, I recall reading Kubica’s debut novel, The Good Girl, which seemed more creative in that parts of it were written from the bad guy’s perspective.
Source: I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher and TLC Book Tours for review purposes. You can visit other stops on the tour and read the reviews by clicking below:

Tuesday, September 4th: Literary Quicksand
Wednesday, September 5th: Diary of a Stay at Home Mom
Thursday, September 6th: Books & Bindings
Thursday, September 6th: Book Reviews and More by Kathy
Friday, September 7th: No More Grumpy Bookseller
Monday, September 10th: Booktimistic
Monday, September 10th: The Book Diva’s Reads
Tuesday, September 11th: Thoughts on This ‘n That
Wednesday, September 12th: Books and Cats and Coffee
Thursday, September 13th: Thoughts from a Highly Caffeinated Mind
Friday, September 14th: Becky on Books
Friday, September 14th: From the TBR Pile
Monday, September 17th: Moonlight Rendezvous
Wednesday, September 19th: Palmer’s Page Turners
Thursday, September 20th: Mystery Suspense Reviews
Friday, September 21st: Girl Who Reads
Monday, September 24th: Novel Gossip
Tuesday, September 25th: Bewitched Bookworms
Tuesday, September 25th: Why Girls are Weird
Thursday, September 27th: Mama Reads Blog
Thursday, September 27th: Jathan & Heather
Friday, September 28th: Kritter’s Ramblings

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Cotton in My Sack (Book Review)

Title: Cotton in My Sack
Author/Illustrator: Lois Lenski
Publication: Dell Yearling paperback, originally published 1949
Genre: Children’s fiction
Plot: Joanda, age 10, is part of an Arkansas sharecropper family on the Cotton belt. Children help their parents pick cotton and school only takes place in the off season. It is a hard life but it is all the Hutley family knows and they have fun together despite their hard work and financial worries. The sharecropper life is very bleak for Joanda’s parents: they don’t see any escape and do not know how to save so are constantly at the mercy of unexpected disasters such as illness or can’t pay for daily living expenses due to their own feckless spending. Yet the Hutley parents are good people, well-liked by their peers, respected for their work ethic, and compassionate toward others. The story is told from Joanda’s perspective as she becomes more perceptive and begins to glimpse how the work done by her father and others fits into an economic system its participants are unaware of.

Ricky Hutley gets hit by a tractor - no health insurance!
Audience: Lenski wrote this story at the request of Arkansas children who had admired her Newbery Medal winner, Strawberry Girl. I don’t remember reading it as a child, although if it was in my library I probably did, but I see so much more in the story as an adult reader: the feckless yet well-intentioned father, the teacher trying to save the Hutley family’s pride yet provide a nourishing hot lunch, the kind uncle instilling savings lessons in the family that likes to spend every penny it earns on junk.

My Impressions: As an adult I was interested in Lois primarily in her role as illustrator of the first four Betsy-Tacy books but enjoyed a recent biography, Lois Lenski: Storycatcher. This described Lenski’s American Regional series, a group of 17 books, of which Cotton in My Sack is one. Lenski began writing these books in the 40s, setting them in different parts of the United States to show how real children lived – initially, regions she observed while driving to Florida but later she responded to specific requests as she did here, visiting Arkansas twice and picking cotton herself. I enjoyed the book as a slice of Americana and found the description of rural farming and sharecropping fascinating but sad. Joanda herself is a bright girl who loves words and books. Her home has newspapers pasted on the wall instead of plaster that she reads:
Joanda loved to read. There were no books or magazines in the house, only the newspapers on the wall [instead of plaster]. The words – strange words she did not know the meaning of – had a fascination for her. She used to ask Daddy to explain what they meant. But he couldn’t – he only went to third grade, he said.
Later a kind teacher lends Joanda a pioneer story she brings home to read aloud with her father:
The book told of hard work and courage and struggle. It had happiness, meanness and sorrow in it. At the sad parts they all cried. Daddy and Joanda read each evening after school until the end was reached.
“It sounds like real to me,” said Daddy. “I feel like I know them folks somehow.”
“That’s ‘cause they’re just like us. They had the same troubles in them days too,” said Mama. “We’re not the only ones had it hard.”
This was Lenski's reason for writing such books - to show these children there were families like theirs with similar challenges.  Joanda’s teacher would have been gratified to know how much the Hutleys liked the book, but unfortunately Joanda drops the book in a mud puddle and is too terrified to return to school. Of course, I thought about the lost library book in All-of-a-kind Family and the kind librarian who works out a payment plan with Sarah to save the family’s pride. In fact, Joanda could have paid for the book from her cotton picking money but the children are allowed to squander their earnings on Saturdays.
Joanda is surprised to learn the landowner's wife has financial worries too
Along with the spoiled toddler, this is the most upsetting part of the book – watching the Hutleys carelessly spend their money at the Goodwill store every week while the father goes off to get drunk. Fortunately, Mrs. Hutley’s uncle is as worried as I am about the family’s future and comes up with a scheme to help them focus on savings. Given that my job is all about asset building for low-income residents, I felt that Uncle Shine and I were working together on this feckless family!

Source: I recently picked up a copy of this book for my friend Nicole but naturally had to read it before giving it to her. While Lenski’s books are not fun the way the Betsy-Tacy books are, I enjoyed this and recommend it.

Images copyright to the publisher

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Campion Towers by John and Patricia Beatty #1965Club

Title: Campion Towers
Author: John and Patricia Beatty
Publication: Macmillan, hardcover, 1965 (now available as an ebook for $2.99)
Genre: YA historical
Plot: When 15-year-old Penitence Hervey travels from Salem in the Massachusetts Bay Colony to England, she arrives in 1651 as the country is still embroiled in Civil War. As a Puritan, Penitence is wary of her new family, the Killingtrees of Campion Towers who are unabashed Cavaliers, and she agrees to spy on them for Cromwell. Her relatives are unfriendly: her grandmother is dying and mistakes her for her deceased mother, her grandfather is furious to see her, her aunt is critical, her cousin Douglas is a spiteful girl her own age, and they lock her into her room at night. Pen is delightfully flawed – quick to anger and jump to conclusions and less respectful than most girls her age (although, surprisingly, this helps to win over her grandfather). She is also appealingly intrepid and as she explores her home and the Worcester area she learns some of the family secrets, including that her handsome cousin Julian, outlawed by Parliament, is a boon companion of Charles Stuart, the rightful king of England. Soon Pen finds herself caught by the claims of old and new loyalties, inspiring the kind of courage that delights readers and which makes a compelling story with unexpected twists.

Audience: This is a young adult historical fiction written by a noted husband/wife team. John Beatty was a professor at the University of California specializing in 17th and 18th English history and his wife Patricia also authored several books of her own.  The California Library Association's John and Patricia Beatty Award annually honors the author of a distinguished book for children or young adults that best promotes an awareness of California and its people.

My Impressions: This is a charming book, which seemed to be written just for me with settings in Massachusetts (US) and the Worcester (UK) countryside, which I recently visited (an English friend recently asked in puzzlement why I had wanted to visit Worcester and was quite surprised when I brought up its importance in the English Civil War). It is more common for fictional heroes or heroines to start in the Old World and seek their fortunes in the new one than to travel back, as Pen does. This makes Pen’s view of her family and the state of English politics quite intriguing and the authors do a good job of showing how Pen’s upbringing and the unscrupulous people who try to use her preconceptions about her mother’s family nearly result in disaster for the good guys. Well, in fact, Oliver Cromwell does win the Battle of Worcester (boo!) but Charles II is not captured by the Parliamentary forces. As Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith said:
For he who fights and runs away
May live to fight another day;
But he who is in battle slain
Can never rise and fight again.
Pen’s new home is named for my family’s favorite saint, Edmund Campion (1540-81). Campion was a Jesuit who braved Elizabeth II’s priest hunters to bring the sacraments to Catholics in England. Some manor houses, such as the one in this story, then known as The Old Abbey, built secret passages to hide visiting priests. Neighbors trusted to keep the secret would be invited to Mass. Over time, the Killingtrees’ secret resulted in a new name for their home. Campion was not so lucky – in 1581, he was captured, tortured, tried, and eventually hanged, drawn, and quartered on December 1, which is now his Feast Day.
Edmund Campion
Charles II plays a larger part in this story than Campion: in fact, he is always depicted as larger than life in fiction or nonfiction. Pen has several memorable encounters with Charles II, first when she finds him hiding in the secret passage used by St. Edmund. She thinks he is a priest come to bring her grandmother the last rites and is shocked when he kisses her.
“You dare to do this!” I cried out. “What would the people who believe in what you stand for think if they knew?”
I had caught him there. He looked puzzled. “I do not believe I understand you, mistress . . . .”
“May I go now?” I asked angrily.
“Perhaps you had better,” he agreed. “I prefer maids who do not speak in parables of what is to come and who would rather kiss than ask questions.”
English Civil War: For those interested in learning more about the English Civil War or just interested in good historical fiction, Campion Towers is back in print from Beebliome Books and I also recommend Stella Riley’s historical novels for adults; start with A Splendid Defiance.
Charles II
Source: I found my hardcover copy of Campion Towers years ago at the Traveler’s Restaurant, a quirky bookstore/restaurant on the Massachusetts/Connecticut line but I didn’t get around to reading it this summer when my friend Michele Blake mentioned it was one of her favorites! Hmmm, I thought, and went upstairs to search my shelves until I found it . . .